While my body is constantly in America, my mind is often in Ukraine. And I’m not talking about memories. My outlook on life is so changed that I routinely act in manner more befitting a Ukrainian than an American.
I’d been warned about reverse culture shock. I’d been told it would be just as difficult to adjust to as the shock I felt my first weeks and months in Ukraine. But seeing is believing.
A week after I landed in Houston, I have already counted six people in their pajamas in public. I stare at them with an open mouth and judging eyes. Shaming them in the Ukrainian fashion. To be clear, I’m not talking about sweat pants. I mean legitimate nightwear: flannel fabric, patterned designs and drawstrings. After the high-fashion world of Ukraine, I find this appalling.
It’s that time of year again: quarantine in Ukraine. Of course, this is no ordinary closure of schools. Generally, there are isolated outbreaks of the seasonal flu in January or February, causing individual regions and towns to shut down for a week or two. In addition to arriving in fall, this round of quarantine is nationwide for three weeks and affects all schools, universities, and public gatherings.
Epiphanies occur in a host of places. In America, mine often came about in the shower. This is probably due to a habit I purposefully instilled from grade school. I know its cheesy but I’ve sort of always wanted to become a writer. When I was in elementary school, I remember reading an interview of a famous author who said she did her best thinking in the bathtub. I thought this was a great idea and started to sit in an empty bathtub, fully clothed to do my serious, grown-up 8-year-old-thinking. This matured into pensive showers, and I can trace many good ideas, stories or not, to soapy-lathers and pumice boards. I don’t think my pondering pattern would’ve changed had I not moved to Ukraine. I’ve been forced to find new sanctuaries in the past year, as a bucket bath is not nearly as conducive to contemplation as its cousin the shower. Lately my startling realizations have come in two far less sexy places: on the phone and in front of my laptop.
So much happens in life that is worth writing down that it’s impossible to record it all. Something always slips through the cracks. Stories I’ve never told come to me in the moments before I fall asleep, as I sit in hour-long meetings that I barely understand, and when I’m trapped anywhere with no escape, (over-packed vehicles of public transportation or birthday parties that last a minimum of twelve hours, to name a few). But lately, I have had a plethora of time in which to think and write. Theoretically, I’ve had two full days with no classes, no social events, and no athletic activities. The problem is I’ve also scarcely been able to move.
In Ukraine, I wear a lot of hats. And not just in winter. I’m an English teacher, an American culture expert, a Mexican food chef, a basketball coach, a yoga instructor, a journalist, a travel agent, and a decent day laborer. I’m also a novice economist.
I made a pact with myself when school started. I was going to run everyday during September. I’ve always been good at daily exercising, but I’ve never had to do it on my own before. It’s a lot easier when you have a team or a gym waiting for you. Hitting up the local soccer stadium where more people are smoking cigarettes than burning up the track is less than inviting. But people are surprisingly friendly there.
This is my moment of zen. I hesitated to share it with you. In a culture as public and communal as Ukraine, I get territorial about my precious private moments. I took this photo on the coast of the Black Sea, after the rest of my party departed for a nap. It was pretty bold of me to stay behind.
Sitting in a house-church in Burshtyn, Ukraine, I heard a familiar song. It was the only one my new friends knew in three languages. First they sang it in Ukrainian, then in Russian, and finally in English.